National Live Review by Rob Johnson
The National’s association with Taylor Swift has seen the band catapulted into the rarified big leagues of playing arenas as evidenced by this packed show at Leeds Arena and also by the fact that a woman behind me spends the entire show shouting for the band to play ‘coney island’ – a Swift song that The National appear on. It’s an odd fit for a band who have always been more comfortable as plucky underdogs.
Matt Berninger (vocals), twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars and keyboards), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) have released two albums in 2023, First Two Pages of Frankenstein in April and Laugh Track in September. While both records have been well received by both fans and critics alike, it does make for a show in which 11 of the 28 songs played are new or newish. The band have earnt the right to play what they want, of course, but this does result in a lack of momentum as the crowd waits for a lift-off moment that never really comes.
‘Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)’ kicks things off and Berninger looks and sounds great with his trademark Ohio drawl booming throughout the cavernous arena. ‘Squalor Victoria’ is an early highlight with Berninger asserting ‘I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt’ – like many of his lyrics throughout the evening, it raises a smile whilst also carrying an undercurrent of melancholy.
The middle part of the set is the most successful with the twitchy guitar of ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ giving way to the twinkly soundscape of ‘I Need My Girl’ before a rip-roaring performance of the relatively obscure EP release ‘Cherry Tree’. By the time ‘Abel’ sees band and audience alike screaming ‘MY MIND’S NOT RIGHT’ this feels like the signal for the show to roar into life. Alas, the band take it down a notch with four new tracks in succession and while ‘Alien’ and ‘Smoke Detector’ are fine songs, the momentum never really returns.
That being said, ‘Fake Empire’ sounds great, and ‘About Today’, dedicated to a dog who once attacked them in a Leeds apartment 20 years ago, is a fitting conclusion to the first part of the set. Returning to the stage in contemplative mood, guitarist Aaron Dessner introduces the live debut of new song ‘Laugh Track’ before a raucous and raw run-through of ‘Mr. November’ provides possibly the best moment of the entire evening. Once again though, in their moment of triumph, the band refuse to follow convention and close the set out with two more songs in the shape of ‘Terrible Love’ and ‘Space Invader’.
It’s a frustrating end to an evening of highs and lows. I could list ten brilliant songs that remain unplayed but The National have never been an act to rest on their laurels. Whilst there is a nagging feeling that this is a band that makes more sense in a smaller venue, preferably one that is beer-soaked, pitch black and falling apart, there are moments here that really soar. When they’re good, The National are untouchable. And it is these moments that adoring crowd will remember a decade from now.